Big Is Beautiful: Large Bands, Worlds of Sound

Jazz has a long tradition of brilliant small bands, starting with groups like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven and extending as far as today’s brilliant Vijay Iyer Trio or the antic quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing.

Jazz also has a proud tradition of large groups, from Jelly Roll Morton Red Hot Peppers to the plethora of brilliant “big bands” that dominated popular music in the ’30s and ’40s to…

Well, what about today? What we think of as the classic jazz “big band” isn’t a thriving form today. That kind of group – with four trumpets, three trombones, and five saxophones roaring contrapuntally atop a sleek, swinging rhythm section – reached its first golden era with Ellington, Goodman, Basie and so on, and there were still brilliant big bands through the ’60s: Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis.

Today, however, what we think of as a “big band” is something different, something less formulaic, a format that is having a very wonderful 2013.

A New Kind of Orchestral Jazz

The classic big bands were marvelous, and they had more range than their greatest hits would indicate. Ellington, in particular, stretched the bounds of what the basic 17-piece big band could achieve. His various orchestral suites took advantage of interesting colors: flutes, clarinets, fiddle, muted brass.

But mostly, the big bands had a basic sound, a set of great moves that sustained artistry for decades but begged for expansion. And in recent years that expansion has surged with creativity. The tradition still informs these new bands, but 2013 has brought a wash of stunning new “orchestral jazz” that requires attention.

The discs that have knocked me out lately are marked by larger bands, unusual instrumentation, the inclusion of singing or recitation, and the incorporation of jazz’s post-bop freedoms in such a way that these bands seem unmoored and unbounded, able to reach for the sounds of classical music, rock or soul, soundtrack music – or just about anything else.

Artist: John Hollenbeck

Album: Songs I Like a Lot

Label: Sunnyside

US Release Date: 2013-01-29

UK Release Date: 2013-01-29

Image: Hollenbeck’s Songs I Like a Lot

Early in 2013, drummer John Hollenbeck released a gorgeous, quivering recording he made with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and singers Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann. Songs I Like a Lot reset a series of wildly different pop songs into a large band setting, with Hollenbeck’s totally original arranging ideas front and center. The familiar “Wichita Lineman” is made to float on air, with the woodwinds getting into a Steve Reich-ian set of quavers and pulses. Hollenbeck uses his big band not with punch and swinging drive but with shimmers of patterns – mallet percussion and guitar are as crucial to this “big band” as trombones.

Hollenbeck is wise in choosing a wide variety of songs for this project. An Ornette Coleman song is vocalized by McGarry, but so is the Appalachian classic “Man of Constant Sorrow”. The latter song is able to utilize free-form percussion but also a strummed acoustic guitar that gets the song into a dancing groove. The original “Chapel Flies” uses gentle cushions of pastel beauty to great effect, but “FallsLake” is like nothing any “big band” could ever have produced: processed vocals, flute/brasses throbs, and slow groove drumming all serve to reproduce and reimagine a song that started as an “ambient” classic.

The complete effect of Songs I Like A Lot is difficult to describe in words. But the last thing it reminds you of is “big band jazz”. Instead, this record generates magic at the intersection of pop song structures, classical minimalism, and avant-garde jazz freedoms. It’s a cauldron of bubbling art music that could only have arrived on record in recent years.

Artist: Joel Harrison 19

Album: Infinite Possibility

Label: Sunnyside

US Release Date: 2013-06-18

UK Release Date: 2013-06-18

Image: Harrison 19’s Infinite Possibility

Guitarist Joel Harrison has recently released a recording that stands as a worthy companion to Songs I Like a Lot. Infinite Possibility features a 19-piece ensemble that similarity utilizes singing beyond the jazz idiom, mallet instruments, and a blend of classical sounds and rock sounds that neither Basie nor Herman would have had at their disposal.

“As We Gather All Around Her” leads of the disc with shimmering vibes/piano, a double-reed melody, and Everett Bradley singing an Appalachian hymn. But this track, like most on this beautiful collection, is a kaleidoscope of shifting sounds. Brass pulses, woodwinds create lush cushions, Donny McCaslin takes a limber tenor saxophone solo, then the tempo goes to zero and Daniel Kelly plays a brooding piano solo that brings the vocal back in darkly – the range of colors and options is very broad.

Blues guitar and brassy exclamations are key to “Dockery Farms”, but so is a mad, muttering section where various muted brass instruments play a free atempo exchange with Harrison’s electric axe. A whimsical chatter of different instruments makes “The Overwhelming Infinity of Possibility” seem like something from Bernstein or Copeland, a uniquely American landscape that shuffles jazz into a deck of classical cards that can’t be limited or categorized. “Remember” is another vocal song – but it’s really more of a tone poem that simply uses Liala Biali’s whisper of “Remember” as one of the floating, gauzy textures that Harrison layers to create a work of surpassing beauty.

Infinite Possibility is very well-named. It’s almost impossible to believe that it is Joel Harrison’s first large band recording because it is a smashing, complex success.

Artist: Marty Ehrlich Large Ensemble

Album: A Trumpet in the Morning

Label: New World

US Release Date: 2013-11-05

UK Release Date: 2013-11-05

Image: Ehrlich’s A Trumpet in the Morning

Multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich has also just released his first recording of orchestral pieces – and it’s another recording that suggests a sure hand rather than rookie talent. A Trumpet in the Morning is a recording of pieces written over many years but just realized.

In some places, Ehrlich’s work sounds like “jazz” as we’re used to it. On “Blues for Peace”, for example, there is a string of compelling improvised solos by trombone, piano, and tenor saxophone, set between a brassy set of themes that ride over a driving rhythm section. But most of A Trumpet in the Morning is wildly diverse and intriguing.

“Rundowns and Turnbacks” begins with a melody and set of harmonies that remind us of Ehrlich’s interest in klezmer music, but body of the composition initially develops into a loopy, drunk-sounding New Orleans-ish melody that fits over a simple backbeat. As the title suggests, however, this track moves into other phases: a mellow waltz feature for guitarist Jerome Harris and John Clark’s trombone; a conversational, free-jazz blues conversation for horns; and much more.

The centerpiece of this recording is the title track, a long-form setting of a poem by Arthur Brown. It’s a dynamic composition reminiscent of some of Wynton Marsalis’s longer works – and with the same mixture of daring and pretense that can haunt Marsalis’s ambitions. But Marsalis is typically tied back to his love and admiration for Ellington and the jazz tradition, whereas Ehrlich sounds on this recording like a man who’s been unleashed to do whatever he wants, whatever might make sense for the art at any moment. “A Trumpet in the Morning” sounds like the entire American landscape in a single composition, spanning styles with glee. Gosh, I actually like J.D. Parran’s recitation here, if you can imagine digging poetic recitation on a jazz record.

Artist: Wadada Leo Smith

Album: Occupy the World

Label: TUM

US Release Date: 2013-06-13

UK Release Date: 2013-06-13

Image: Leo Smith’s Occupy The World

The most unusual of the orchestral works I’m listening to now is the latest from the prolific and adventurous trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. He has written five long compositions for his solo voice and “TUMO” an ad hoc 22-piece band of brass, woodwinds, strings, electronics, and percussion players mainly from Finland and Norway. Smith is as interesting a “free” jazz player as you might find – he can write obscure liner notes about his compositional processes, you bet, but he also plays and composes with a generous lyricism. And all of that brilliance and contrast is on display here.

Occupy the World features plenty of free improvising, not only by individual soloists but also by large chunks of the ensemble at once. The written sections tend to be less contrapuntal and specifically complex than on the other works discussed here. Smith more often writes in long unison melodies or in large blocks of harmonized sound. Additionally, Smith is more likely to trade in generalized sections of free sound such as the burbling electronics, electric guitar atmospherics, and crashing cymbals that begin “The Bell – 2” and over which Smith plays a clarion open horn.

“The Bell – 2” is, however, not at all unlike what you can hear on the Harrison, Hollenbeck, or Ehrlich collections. Smith is also concerned with what might pass for European “classical” music, creating long sections of notated music that eschews swing (or other “regular”) rhythms in favor of surprise, texture, and melodic interest. Then, in comes an electric guitar solo over a free groove section, with the accompanying instruments including patterned mallet instruments and an improvising trombone.

Smith’s range with his ensemble is wider because of the inclusion of six string instruments in addition to two guitars. “Mount Kilamanjaro” is a tone poem that features bassist John Lindberg but also includes swirling writing for all the strings. “Crossing on a Southern Road” begins with a long, building drone for the strings that finally explodes into a daring open horn statement by Smith, undergirded by arresting tones from the laptops, the horns – a spooky landscape of sound that accurately paints the picture of its title.

So Much Sound

What all these discs have in common is a general preponderance of sounds, not just larger orchestras but also an array of approaches: jazz the omnivorous style that is not afraid to absorb great swaths of other styles, other approaches. Smith, Ehrlich, Harrison, and Hollenbeck may be creating “jazz”, what with all the improvised solos and blues vernacular and pulsing rhythms, but this is music with few boundaries.

And that is the state of jazz today: toiling, perhaps, in obscurity, but creating worlds that ripple with excitement and creativity. Big worlds.